On this week’s show we had an impromptu discussion at the end about the fallibility of memory. This is an important topic for skeptics, for there are many anecdotal accounts presented as evidence for UFO’s and the entire spectrum of woo and the paranormal. Knowing in detail the flaws and limitations of human memory is therefore critical to analyzing these claims. It is also useful in legal matters and in everyday life.
It is disconcerting how flawed our memories are. The idea that the past I remember is not my past but a constantly changing story I subconsciously make up about my past just doesn’t seem right – but the evidence is overwhelming that it is. Jay recounted a memory of watching a specific episode of Star Trek TNG with Bob and Bob recounting the quote to him from Arthur Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This memory is clear to Jay and his certainty in its accuracy is very high. It is verifiably true that the episode is real and he really watched it. The quote from Clarke is also verifiably true. But all the other details are not verifiable and therefore we cannot know how accurate Jay’s memory is. Perhaps he heard the quote from someone else, or from Bob at a different time and then just merged the memories.
The skeptical literature is also full of articles on memory. Here is one by Richard Wiseman and others from the Skeptical Inquirer, specifically focusing on memory and eyewitness testimony of allegedly paranormal events.
Note – I will keep this as a floating blog post. I want to dig up some more of the seminal studies in human memory and I will list them here as I get them.